There are some words I simply don’t like. Many of these words aren’t profane or crass. They are ordinary words which have come to be associated with negative emotions and destructive actions. One such word is “needy”. For Saint Francis, being needy was a good thing. Living in the world as “pilgrims and strangers” made the early Franciscans more aware of their dependence upon God. Francis wrote, “our Lord made Himself poor in this world.” Yet today, it is far from customary to describe Jesus as needy. If anything we avoid discussions of his poverty. The economic realities of Jesus’ day, virtually identical to those of Saint Francis make us uncomfortable. Despite 18 occurrences of either “the poor” or “poverty” in the Gospels; we don’t see our savior as needy.
If someone is “needy” they require more of our time to attend to their self-perceived needs than we are willing to give. Needy, in this sense, means people who lack a sense of self-awareness and motivation. Infants are needy because they cannot meet their own needs. People become needy because, through cycles of co-dependence, they see themselves as unable to meet their own spiritual, emotional, or physical needs. This is one way middle class 1st world people use the word needy. We have needy girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses, work colleagues or friends. Whether through television or other media, this notion of the needy friend or family member is embedded in our lives. What happens, however, when we use this same term to describe those who are materially, physically, and emotionally impoverished?
The poor become the “needy” and whether we realize it or not, the same feelings of antipathy and frustration we hold toward our “needy” friends are too easily applied to the poor, hungry, and destitute of our communities. Though we find ourselves in church each week and claim to be committed to serving those who Jesus called us serve, using this word opens the door toward creating a church culture which hates the poor while claiming to love Jesus.
When we use the term “needy”, it comes with an underlying idea; the person with the need is somehow unwilling to help themselves. They take and we give, often begrudgingly, of our time and money. This is how we talk about our “needy” friends and relatives. Consider how many of us approach the idea of needy people in much the same manner:
The poor are poor because they choose to be. They could be better off if they only spent their money wiser.
The poor have the opportunity to receive ample government benefits and do not need extra assistance from private individuals.
The poor should be happy with whatever assistance we provide; whether we attach strings to our gifts or not.
The poor shouldn’t question the appropriateness of a gift. They should be grateful for anything.
The poor waste the resources we offer them on illegal activities or unhealthy lifestyles.
These are simply extensions of the same arguments we make when dealing with friends and family members who exhibit “neediness” in their personal or emotional lives. As Christians, the same standards we believe to be valid in a middle class world full of 1st world problems aren’t the ones Jesus applied at any time in his ministry. Jesus doesn’t make decisions about the motivations, apparent resources, or yesterday’s choices made by anyone (poor or not). He simply meets the needs of those he encounters. Jesus doesn’t ask questions about yesterday or today. Jesus acts so the stage may be set for a better tomorrow.